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The Mess That Is the 2020 James Beard Awards, Explained

What the hell is going on at the James Beard Foundation?

James Beard Awards medal Photo: Getty/Victor Spinelli/WireImage

The James Beard Foundation — one of the food world’s most esteemed organizations and awards-granting bodies — has seen waves of reckonings this year as the foundation faces scrutiny both internally and in the public eye. In August, the foundation made a historic (and to many, perplexing) decision to cancel its glitzy and highly respected award ceremony, both this year and in 2021. (The 2020 winners were supposed to be announced on September 25, after COVID-19 postponed the original May 5 ceremony date.) The coronavirus pandemic and the restaurant industry’s “uphill battle” were the given reasons that an award show just didn’t seem appropriate.

But after the cancellation announcement, it became apparent that the pandemic likely wasn’t the only deciding factor. According to an August 25 New York Times report, the foundation made the decision in part because there was not a single Black chef among the winners in 23 categories. The list of 2020 James Beard nominees also included the names of some chefs who have recently faced controversy and criticism, which, according to the foundation’s rules of eligibility, could disqualify them from winning. On Wednesday, according to the New York Times, the 20-person volunteer committee responsible for overseeing the Beard’s restaurant and chef-related awards — a group made up of food journalists, cookbook editors, and creative directors — sent a letter to the foundation’s chair. In it, they expressed their dissatisfaction and concern with the way the foundation has handled the awards, or the lack thereof, this year.

The committee’s rebuke of the foundation wasn’t the only one JBF has faced in recent months: On July 16, on the heels of the police murder of George Floyd, and national calls for racial justice, a large group of foundation employees sent a letter to the organization’s senior leadership team. In this letter, the employees described themselves as a group that “dedicated years of their lives to the work of the James Beard Foundation despite pay disparity, inadequate benefits, long hours, and challenging working conditions,” alleging that the organization’s external commitment to equity was not reflected in its internal practices and treatment of workers. Among the group’s five main demands were calls for the foundation to diversify the senior leadership team and the board of trustees. On July 23, an anonymous foundation employee told Eater that the lengthy list of demands was “met with more gaslighting and deferred action.” At the time, Clare Reichenbach, the foundation’s CEO, told Eater the foundation was in the process of hiring a senior director of people and culture, to “ensure that we are creating a work environment that is safe, supportive, and inclusive for all.”

It can be difficult to keep track of how the James Beard Foundation, which just months ago was seen by most as a respected award-granting body and advocacy organization for the restaurant industry, has been plunged into turmoil. From award postponement to internal reckonings, here’s everything that’s happened with the canceled James Beard Awards so far this year.

Cancelling the 2020 James Beard Chef and Restaurant Awards

The decision to host a conventional award ceremony (albeit online) was scrapped on August 20. In a press release, the foundation wrote that in the midst of the economic and health crisis facing restaurants and their workers, “the Foundation believes the assignment of Awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle.” The foundation simultaneously announced the cancellation of the 2021 awards, as well as plans to work with an outside social justice agency to reevaluate policies and procedures of the awards. The release stated that the purpose of surveying the award process is to “remove any systemic bias, increase the diversity of the pool of candidates, maintain relevance, and align the Awards more outwardly with the Foundation’s values of equity, equality, sustainability, and excellence for the restaurant industry.”

Instead of the annual award ceremony, the foundation intended to host a live broadcast on September 25 (when chef and restaurant winners would have been announced), celebrating the already-named winners in categories including Lifetime Achievement and Humanitarian of the Year awards, which recognize influential and iconic leaders in the food world.

Several chefs removed their names from the list of 2020 JBF award nominees

On August 21, just a day after the foundation announced the award ceremony’s cancellation, Eater reported that a short note had been added to the foundation’s list of 2020 nominees, which still stood: “Several nominees have withdrawn their nominations for personal reasons.” At the time, it wasn’t entirely clear whether these chefs had withdrawn their names before or after they got word the awards were off, or why they had done so.

The foundation categorized these withdrawals as having to do with “personal reasons,” and not at the request of the foundation. Some chefs, like David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, and Rich Landau of Vedge in Philadelphia, withdrew their names to make a point about the need for unity across the industry.

But others confirmed they withdrew their own names following online controversies and call-outs. Paul Bartolotta of the Milwaukee-based Bartolotta Restaurants group told Eater he removed his name from consideration because of “anonymous accusations directed toward myself and the Bartolotta Restaurants organization that have been sent to the James Beard Foundation.” Also absent from the updated list was Jessica Koslow, the owner of the restaurant Sqirl in Los Angeles. Koslow had faced criticism earlier in the summer for serving moldy jam at her restaurant, allegedly taking credit for other people’s recipes, and hiding an illegal kitchen space from the health department. Koslow confirmed to Eater that she removed herself from consideration for the 2020 Best Chef: California award, and also removed herself from a foundation committee.

Reached for comment at the time, the foundation doubled down on the idea that these withdrawals reflected personal decisions, and had little to do with a push by the foundation itself. It would soon become clear that this classification was, at best, misleading. According to reporting by the New York Times, the foundation asked some chefs, whom they deemed too controversial, to drop out of the running.

It became clear that canceling the awards probably wasn’t just a show of solidarity and support

Much of the controversy surrounding the James Beard Foundation has arisen since the awards were canceled, a decision that remains opaque and confusing even to some within the organization. The New York Times reported in August that several people who serve on the volunteer committee that oversees the restaurant and chef awards were unaware of the cancellation until hours before it was announced to the public.

And in late July, according to the Times, a foundation employee voiced a concerning observation in an emergency Zoom meeting: There was not a single Black chef among the winners in 23 categories.

This wasn’t exactly a new issue. A 2018 Mic survey showed that while that year had been “the most inclusive year for women and the second-most inclusive for people of color in the history of the James Beard Foundation,” the organization has a long history of favoring white male chefs. But of the 2020 winners, one committee employee told the Times that “The message came through that they knew who the winners were, and the winners didn’t look like they want them to look.”

According to the Times, Mitchell Davis, the foundation’s chief strategy officer, proposed removing previous winners from this year’s voting body, suspecting the previous winners may have created systemic bias in the voting process. Roughly 300 chefs who previously won JBF awards are among the current voting body, along with 250-plus panelists divided among award regions, and a very small group of Restaurant and Chef Award committee members. Removing the previous award winners from the voting body would have drastically changed its makeup. The committee was not in favor of altering the voting process after votes had already been counted — even if it could result in a more diverse pool of winners. Another option, viewed more positively by the committee at the time, was to simply remove chefs from the nominee list who had been accused of wrongdoing, and to vote again.

But in the days that followed this initial turmoil, the situation only became more hectic and confused. There wasn’t a consensus on how to properly vet accused chefs, nor were many of them given much time to respond to the accusations presented by the foundation. Some of the allegations sent to the foundation were anonymous, making corroborating them time consuming and potentially impossible.

The chef and restaurant awards committee is seriously unhappy

The awards might be off, but the volunteer committee that orchestrates the restaurant and chef awards has made known to the foundation’s chairman that their “faith in the Foundation has been shaken.” In a letter obtained by the Times, the committee alleged that the foundation had compromised the integrity of the awards when they attempted to change the voting process after issues of representation came to light.

In their statement, the committee members also expressed concerns that a troubling lack of transparency might continue as the foundation moved forward with its review of systemic bias in the award-granting process. As the foundation initially contemplated a revote, the committee pushed back against the foundation’s attempts to revise the award results by striking certain names from the ballot and sending it to a voting committee that excluded previous winners. And while the committee’s letter voiced dismay that no Black winners had been selected, they also wrote that it was “shocking” for any demographic information to have been shared in the first place, as that information was to remain confidential.

The James Beard Foundation is experiencing something of an identity crisis. At the start of the pandemic, it seemed perhaps the foundation could effectively transform into an organization whose primary purpose was to advocate for the restaurant industry. But as internal turmoil continues to rock the boat, and the iconic awards are taken off the table for at least the next two years, it’s unclear what’s next. What is clear, however, is that when the foundation does grant awards again, the process will likely be quite different.

Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards.

Correction: September 11, 2020, 10:50 a.m. This piece has been corrected to reflect that the “winners didn’t look like they want them to look” quote was attributed in the NYT to an anonymous committee member, not a foundation employee.